Barbeque and Mexican food are touchy subjects for Texans. “Everybody feels like they’re an expert,” San Antonio chef Steve McHugh says. “So if you read Yelp reviews, it’s like all 5 stars and all 1 stars. Nobody’s in between when it comes to BBQ.” McHugh, who recently relocated from New Orleans, is used to extreme opinions: His restaurant, Cured, was just named one of the South’s 30 best restaurants by Southern Living magazine. With dishes like whipped pork butter, chicken-fried chicken livers and cajeta pudding, can you blame them?
We talked to McHugh about the evolution of his farm-to-table restaurant, on letting his refrigerator space dictate his menus, and why he donates a portion of his profits to charity.
You moved from New Orleans to San Antonio to open a restaurant. What’s unique about San Antonio?
San Antonio is a young scene. It has so much great history, from the Spanish influence to the German to the Czech. There’s a huge military population here, and we’re talking about people who have travelled all over the world. Lots of military people come into our restaurant and they’ll eat something and say, “this reminds me of that time I was stationed in Germany.” San Antonio really is kind of like New Orleans in that it has its own indigenous cuisine.
Texas is very similar to New Orleans in that way; their cuisines are very distinct from other Southern cuisines. What do you bring to the Texas food scene?
I take everything I’ve learned over the years—from growing up in Wisconsin to going to culinary school in upstate New York to all my years cooking in New Orleans—but I utilize indigenous ingredients that I find here. For example, I learned how to make grits 20 years ago in New Orleans, but here we make mole grits. It’s still that technique, but it’s locally driven. People appreciate that.
How has the menu at Cured evolved since you opened?
We’re evolving every day. It really keeps my sous chefs, my cooks, the servers, everybody excited about wanting to work here. We don’t want them to get stagnant and we don’t want our clients to get stagnant. We don’t want the menu to be this thing that never changes because then what’s the point of coming here if you’ve had everything?
We have a farmers market that happens in front of our restaurant twice a week. Right now we’re playing with epazote and papalo, which are both very pungent native Mexican herbs. Farmers bring them to us and we’re like oh my god, this is unlike anything I’ve ever had before. I have to figure out how to use this. Anybody can pick up the phone and order heirloom tomatoes from California, but if you’ve got beautiful produce near you, why not use it? It’s part of this area, part of this cuisine.
And we only buy whole animals. It becomes challenging, but at the same time it’s fun because we let the farmer and the refrigerator dictate what the menu looks like. We don’t necessarily go out and say, I want strawberries on the menu and then go find strawberries. We wait until somebody has strawberries and then we put them on the menu. It’s an opposite approach of a lot of restaurants.
How do the diners compare in San Antonio and New Orleans?
They’re both heavy tourist markets, but the tourist is very different. In New Orleans it was pretty much couples, husbands and wives down for a long weekend and a good meal, or college kids. You didn’t see a lot of children. In San Antonio, it’s a little more of a family traveler. I’m sure you’ve been in downtown San Antonio. I always tell people, listen, the River Walk is like Bourbon Street, obviously not as rowdy and ruckus, but go there, enjoy it, do it one night, and then I’ll show you where I go to get the best brisket taco and the best barbecue in town. Look, I make a living on that River Walk. I’m not mad at it. It’s the same thing I used to say to people when they visited New Orleans. Bourbon Street is what it is.
We’ll bite: Where are your favorite places to eat in San Antonio?
The Granary, which is right out my back door. During the day, it’s very much traditional barbecue, but then at night it’s all composed plates very chef-driven barbecue. Barbecue’s one of those things that people either absolutely love or absolutely hate because everybody feels like they’re an expert. So if you read Yelp reviews, it’s like all 5 stars and all 1 stars. Nobody’s in between when it comes to barbecue.
My favorite Mexican restaurant in town, once again this is a touchy subject for a lot of people here, is Garcia’s. It’s an old gas station turned restaurant and it’s been there about 50 years. They care about everything on the plate, not just the taco or the brisket, but also the sides. I judge a good Tex-Mex restaurant by how good the sides are.
How do you appeal to that family traveler at Cured?
When we designed the restaurant, we really wanted a place where everybody would feel like they were welcome. We purposely didn’t use tablecloths because we felt like people get nervous when they see that. They think expensive. The place across the street could have the same price point, but we just look more expensive. You’re never going to have a restaurant that’s for everyone, but we really wanted to have some things on the menus that were very approachable on a lot of levels. Like a steak. A steak is very approachable, but at the same time it’s right next to grilled beef heart.
Is there a lot of pressure on chefs now to have good bar programs?
Yes. But I wouldn’t want to open a restaurant and have really quirky, fun, interesting food and then just have boring drinks. People would think they got half an experience. When you’re opening a restaurant, you should look at the overall experience. It makes me mad to go into a restaurant with a bad bathroom. Why didn’t they put time or money into this? It’s all part of the experience.
We want our drinks to represent what we’re trying to do in the kitchen. So we go after very small production wines, things that you might not find anywhere else in the city. The same thing goes for our beers. We’re always trying to find these quirky one-offs that maybe not anyone else is going to have. In fact, my managers in the front hate it, because if I ever see any of our wine in another restaurant, I immediately make them pull it off our list. They also can’t be expensive because our food’s not expensive. We’re not allowed to have a bottle over $100 on the menu and only 25 percent of our list can be over $55.
Our cocktails are very much based on what’s in season or what we’re working on in the kitchen like a new shrub. But we want them to be quick, and fun and definitely pair well with our food. We like things that are very palate cleansing because we are working with food that is fatty and salty, so you want something that’s refreshing.
What are the challenges of having a craft cocktail program at a restaurant?
People come here because it’s a restaurant. They don’t want to wait 15 minutes for a bartender to put together a drink. You can’t get away with it at a restaurant. My bartenders will bring me a cocktail with eight steps and six ingredients and I say, on a busy Saturday night are you going to be able to bang these out? It’s not that it’s not a great drink, but does it fit us? The same goes for young chefs. I say that all the time, guys, we can’t have tweezer food. We can’t have six different squirt bottles. Is it sloppy food? Hell no. But we’ve got to be able to put food out quickly. That’s just who we are.
There’s a level of nervousness about going to a restaurant. Nobody wants to sit there with nothing in front of them when everybody around them’s eating or drinking and laughing and having a good time. It’s that I’m late to the party kind of feel. And I don’t want anybody to feel like that in my restaurant. If you can get something immediately in front of the guests when you sit down, you wipe away some of that nervousness. OK, I feel comfortable now. I feel like I belong.
You’re hosting a big charity dinner this weekend with proceeds going to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Why is LLS so important to you?
I’m a lymphoma survivor. I was diagnosed in 2010, and at the time I was working for John Besh in New Orleans. I did eight rounds of chemo, some of it in New Orleans and some of it here in San Antonio because I was in the process of moving when I was diagnosed. I did about eight months of that and have been in remission ever since late 2010. I feel like I owe LLS my life. The treatments I got when I was sick weren’t available 15 years prior, so I’m almost lucky I got sick when I was 35 and not 20.
We’re calling the dinner Cured for a Cure, because LLS is 100 percent focused on cures. They don’t focus on causes because as of right now there are no known causes for blood cancers. The only thing my doctor ever told me was that I need to alleviate some stress in my life. And I’m like, well I’m a fucking chef I don’t know how to do that. I thrive on stress.
Why are you bringing in chefs from outside San Antonio?
Chefs from all over the world go to New Orleans to get involved in different events, which is obviously because it is a food mecca. San Antonio’s really good at collaborating amongst itself, but when it comes to bringing in outside talent, you just don’t see it all the time. So I was like, I want to call my chef buddies and get them down here.
I’ve got a couple friends of mine coming in from New Orleans, guys I haven’t cooked with in a long time, Phillip Lopez and Mike Gulotta. Then there’s Nicole Patel, a chocolatier out of Austin. And John Tesar’s coming in from Dallas. He’s such an interesting character. He’s one of those guys who doesn’t give a shit about anyone except himself. He puts out great food and he doesn’t care what people say. He’s a hell of a chef.
You also donate $1 from every charcuterie board you sell at Cured to other charities. Why is charity so important to you?
I got my life back here in San Antonio. We moved here from New Orleans and we were just embraced. My wife and I wanted to prove to everybody that we are here to stay. We’re not just here to take, we’re here to give and to be a part of this community. So we came up with the idea of giving away $1 of ever charcuterie platter we sell. We didn’t really know what that was going to entail, but we we average about $4,500 every three months. Sure, it’d be great to put that $20,000 in the bank, but that’s not who we want to be. We also want to give people a reason to come here and enjoy the place and feel like they’re also giving back.
We rotate the charities every few months because there’s so many great causes out there. We’re focusing on the St Bernard Project this quarter, because of all the great they did during Katrina, and the good that they continue to do. We remember where we come from and constantly try to figure out where we’re going. It keeps us very humble.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep